Anne Williams, chief operating officer at Propel Finance, talks to Juliette Salgado Smith about her career in leasing.
Williams has built a 30-year career in leasing starting with her first job for GE Capital, based in Bristol, where she progressed through the company over the next 25 years.
Five years ago she shifted gears, switching from a big name corporate to taking up the reins as chief operating officer for Wales-based independent lessor Propel Finance.
Q: Was there a defining moment that led you down the path of a career in finance?
A: There wasn’t so much a defining moment, but I really enjoyed my first job in leasing and then I was headhunted to join a new-start leasing company which I absolutely loved.
Being in at the start of the business and getting involved in all aspects was brilliant; and I got to work with some amazing people. From this point on I was hooked on the industry.
Q: How did the idea of working in leasing develop, or how did that opportunity arise?
A: It honestly happened by accident. My fiancé was offered a job which meant a house move to Bristol, and I needed to find a job quickly so that we could move from London in time for the start of his new job.
The first job I found was in leasing, but I really did not even know what it involved at this time. I thought that if I accepted the job and it did not work out, I could search for another one in Bristol once we were there and settled. I really enjoyed the job and the rest is history as they say, but I am so pleased now that I accepted that first role.
Q: Before your current role, you enjoyed a 25-year career at GE Capital before joining the old Henry Howard Finance Group (Hhf), which later became Propel. Were you actively looking for a COO role?
A: No, I have never chased roles but more sought to find ones which developed, stretched and stimulated me. My time at GE Capital, holding both UK and European roles, gave me those opportunities in abundance. However, moving to HHF (now Propel) definitely took me out of my big company comfort zone; and that really excited me and still does to this day.
Q: What were the cultural differences in transitioning from GE Capital to Propel?
A: One of the advantages of working for an independent company like Propel is that we are not bogged down in corporate policy and structures, so decision making becomes much simpler and quicker.
The flip side of that is that you don’t have the large corporate safety net or employee resource to stand behind you, so you have to stand by your decisions and you also become much more involved which is amazing as I love being close to our employees and customers on a daily basis.
We have an amazing team at Propel; the business is small enough that we know everyone across the teams, but we have worked really hard on employing people who enhance our culture and live our Propel values every day (Personal, Progressive & Partnering). We truly are one team working to grow our business and that of our customers.
Q: What are the major challenges facing a COO in 2020?
A: The number one challenge is driving the organisation during the current Covid period when we are all working remotely but planning a phased re-entry to our offices across the country. Technology is number two – we pride ourselves on leading the market in terms of our customer-facing and back-office technology which requires constant research, planning and development; thankfully we have a brilliant in-house IT department and quality external partners who share our goals and ambitions.
Third, is the overall regulatory framework we operate within and making sure we are always leading the way in this regard for all our stakeholders.
Transformation and change management is another massive area. The whole world has changed in 2020, beyond what we could have ever imagined; and we have had to move very quickly in so many ways but with so much positivity on the back of this which will stay with us forever as we all learn to operative and grow in this new world environment we are in.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time career-wise?
A: I am not thinking that far ahead to be honest but I continue to love what I do every day, focusing on growing our business at Propel and our employees. Ultimately if we are successful at Propel, I will be successful too and for now that is more than enough for me.
Q: How many full-time employees does Propel have on staff and what’s the company’s average deal size?
A: We currently have just over 165 employees within our 3 offices. As at June 2020, our average deal size was £11,675. With our diverse customer and vendor relationships, deals can range from a few hundred pounds in some cases to £2m+ in our industrial asset sectors. The key is to use technology to deliver a simple, seamless, customer experience which allows us considerable scalability whilst always offering a brilliant service.
Q: On your company website you identify 14 areas of sector experience, some of which have been severely disrupted by Covid-19. I’m thinking of catering/hospitality, restaurants and road haulage. Are there any plans to expand your sector diversity coming out of Covid-19?
A: Like all asset finance lenders we have felt the impact of Covid across our customer base, but we have a very diverse spread of sectors within our portfolio so we’ve probably been less impacted than some lenders but clearly the impact has still been considerable across the sectors you mention above. We are constantly reviewing the sectors we operate within, and we are in the process of launching several new areas of specialism including agriculture and specialist cars with more to come in the second half of 2020 and 2021.
Q: I see on your company website that Propel prides itself in being one of the leading providers of SME finance in the UK. Can you tell us more about your
current customer base?
A: We currently have around 40,000 customers within Propel and this is still growing despite the expected Covid slowdown, but things are definitely picking up again now with the need for finance being stronger than ever for UK SMEs. We have strong partnerships with over 400 vendors who offer our finance to their customers and also direct with UK businesses. One of our big areas of focus in 2020 is on new partnerships and we have already put a few in place thus giving the ability to offer asset finance to other companies’ customers; this goes from other commercial finance lenders, accountants and other platforms who receive enquiries from UK companies for finance help.
Q: Propel has a big customer base, what’s been your experience in showing clients’ forbearance during the pandemic?
A: Our primary focus regarding our customers who needed help during the Covid period was to be available when they needed us, to react quickly to any questions and to take away as much stress as possible during this impossibly hard time for them.
Being a relatively small organization, we were able to rapidly set up from scratch a dedicated forbearance team of 26 employees drawn from other areas of the business thus making sure we were able to deal with requests immediately when they came into us. During the interim period we have stayed in regular contact with our customers and understand how their situations are evolving and gauging how best to support them ongoing.
The feedback from our customers has been very positive and they tell us we have been one of the easier lenders to deal with during their conversations; and some are even now coming back for new business having re-opened which is lovely to see.
Q: Did you need to furlough any staff?
A: We did furlough a small percentage of our staff, but the majority were either redeployed or remained in their existing roles working from home. However, from the end of August all employees will be back in the business as we springboard back into business as usual.
Q: What do you think the main challenge that Propel will have to overcome in a post lockdown UK will be? How do you plan to overcome this?
A: Undoubtedly we will need to innovate in terms of how we structure and organise the work environment. Thinking of a time when everyone is back in the office is hard and we have seen so many benefits from the current home working period, so we want to make sure that we don’t lose all of these. Realistically we need to make flexible working much more common and that will require some planning and changes in technology too.
Also supporting our customers in the new world is going to be key; and we are rapidly implementing a wider transformation plan to ensure that we make the most of technologies to offer the best possible customer experience where they can transact with us on the terms and timings that suit them not us.
I am very occasionally envious of people who say that they were able to grow vegetables, take up a new hobby, redecorate their house during lockdown as at Propel we have been busier than ever supporting our customers and planning to hit the ground running post lockdown. So we have a plan, it is underway, and we will continue to review and refine it as post lockdown events unfold.
Anne Williams is chief operating officer at Propel Finance (formerly Henry Howard Finance).
Juliette Salgado Smith is studying for a BA in history and politics at the University of York.